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The Historical Pertinence of Parametricism and the Prospect of a Free Market Urban Order
Patrik Schumacher, London 2014
Published in: The Politics of Parametricism, Digital Technologies in Architecture
Edited by Matthew Poole and Manuel Shvartzberg, Bloomsbury Academic, New York 2015

To respond to manifest societal trends, i.e. technological, socio-economic, and political trends, is a vital capacity of architecture. However this response must be an architectural rather than a political response. Debating politics within architecture can only concern the identification of manifest political trends. It can never be political debate, i.e. never a participation in the political controversies themselves. Architecture cannot substitute itself for the political process proper and must leave politico-economic innovations and the elaboration of radical politico-economic alternatives to the political and economic arenas. Architecture has no capacity to resolve political controversy. Political controversy and activism would overburden and explode the discipline. However, architecture can and must respond to transformative historical developments that become manifest within the economy and the political system.  Architecture can only react with sufficient unanimity and collective vitality to dominant political agendas that already have the real power of a tangible political force behind them. Architectural discourse must develop innovative architectural responses to these historical transformative trends. This task raises the question of the historical adaptive pertinence of the various competing architectural tendencies, and in particular the question of parametricism’s historical pertinence might be posed.
The political and socio-economic premises of parametricism are found in the advancing processes of post-fordist restructuring, globalization, market liberalisation, and democratization. The methods of parametricism operate in line with the demands of post-fordist flexible specialization and deliver attendant economies of scope. What is less clear is how the enhanced spatio-morphological ordering ambitions of parametricism can be compatible with the tendency that urban development is increasingly driven by market forces in the context of an eroding public panning capacity. The resultant urban disarticulation leads to the much bemoaned lack of identity and sense of urban chaos of the global “garbage spill” urbanisation.
The increasing societal diversity paradoxically leads to white noise sameness rather than divers urban identities.1 The imposition of visual order through top down planning is no longer economically viable and in any event would blunt rather than reveal the underlying social complexity. In the face of the problem of disorienting urban disarticulation parametric urbanism posits its vision of the bottom-up emergence of a complex variegated urban order whereby the different geographical, climatic, industrial and cultural specificies of development sites become the starting point for the self-amplifying, path-dependent emergence of legible urban identities. Below the architectural, disciplinary preconditions of such a scenario will be elaborated.
The theoretical starting point of parametricism is thus the acceptance of the pervasive historical socio-economic trends of post-fordist restructuring, globalization and market liberalisation, inclusive of market-led urban land-use allocation, and the eagerness to engage the challenges these trends pose for architecture and urbanism’s adaptive innovation, challenges that architecture and urbanism so far failed to meet.


Locating architecture’s specific criticality, the false pretence of ‘political architecture’

The stance of parametricism is sharply critical of current architectural and urban design outcomes. However, parametricism’s stance is implicitly affirmative with respect to the general societal (social, economic and political) trends that underlie the criticized urban outcomes. This implicit affirmation is a necessary condition of professional engagement with social reality.2The currently fashionable concept of a “critical” or “political” architecture as a supposed form of political activism must be repudiated as an implausible phantom.
The notion of a political architecture has transformed from a tautology to an oxymoron. In pre-Modern times, fortresses, palaces and other major monuments were constituents of the political system as were religion, the law and the economy. In Modern times, architecture and politics have become separate autopoietic function systems. This raises the question of their proper relationship, their mutual observation, engagement and adaptation.
The paradigmatic examples from the early 1920s and the late 1960s that give meaning to the notion of politically engaged architecture were born in the exceptional condition of social revolution (or pending social revolution). During such periods everything is being politicized: the law, the economy, education, architecture, and even science. The autonomy of the functional subsystems of society is temporarily being suspended. During normal times architecture and politics are separated as autonomous discursive domains. They are autopoietic function systems within a world civilization that is now primarily ordered via functional differentiation. Representative democracy is the form the political system tends to take in the most advanced states within functionally differentiated world society. Representative democracy professionalizes politics and regularizes the channels of political influence, negotiation, and collectively binding decision making. The specialized, well-adapted channels of political communication absorb and bind all political concerns. Art, science, education, architecture etc. are released from the burden of becoming vehicles of political agitation. The more this system consolidates, the longer this division of labour within society works, the more false and out of place rings the pretence of ‘political architecture’. The term has become an oxymoron - at least until the emergence of the next revolutionary situation, when a new socio-political upheaval re-politicizes all aspects and arrangements of society. At that stage - within the throes of a genuine social revolution - we can expect the (temporary) melt-down of these distinctions and their underlying differentiation. Then we are no longer concerned with politics in the operationally defined sense that this term currently denotes.
Until then it is certainly not architecture’s societal function to initiate or promote political agendas. Those who feel that a radical political transformation of society is a prior condition of any meaningful architectural project and therefore want to debate and resolve political questions must do so within the political system. Only there can they really form sustained political convictions and test the power of their arguments.
The concept of a ‘critical’ or ‘political’ architecture is either due to the delusion that the revolution has arrived or an atavism that dreams about small ‘brotherhood’ style societies without the functional division of societal realms that characterizes contemporary world society.  This desire to collapse systemic distinctions that order society - like the desire for the atavistic fusion of architecture, economy and politics -  leads towards totalitarianism.3
The distinctions between architecture, art, science, economy and politics are reflecting the historically specific, current ordering of societal discourses/practices. The failure to understand and reckon with these distinctions leads to self-defeating projects.  Although philosophers or self-styled activists might wish to abolish or re-mix these categories, society reinforces these distinctions daily. While philosophy hovers above these domains unboundedly, real activists and professionals are bound by them, and for good reasons: society can this way parallel process a much more complex and accelerated evolution via the coevolution of autopoietic, functional subsystems that stimulate each other’s evolution without being subject to a single master-discourse. The evolved complexity of world society and the world division of labour cannot tolerate de-differentiation. De-differentiation would imply a crippling loss of productivity. Holisms break at this complexity barrier, as the catastrophic experiences of 20th century totalitarianism demonstrate. Actors who want to act effectively need to know whether their project is an art project, a sociology project, a political project, or a design project etc. This is a condition of effective action in 21st century world society.
To be an effective, the innovative architect does not require any explicit political position. Indeed, the stating of political preferences and affiliations would be inappropriate within a professional context, just as we would not want to be bothered by the political position of our doctor or lawyer. This professional attitude of restricting one’s communication to the domain of relevancy of one’s competency is a necessary requirement of competent communication today. To violate this social norm amounts to the abdication of one’s social role as professional and implies the termination of the intended communicative nexus. It is clients that take responsibility for the (potentially controversial) political status of projects. The political meaning of the project is attributed to the client. Although a project might be controversial, the fact that it can go ahead at all implies that it is in principle consistent with the prevailing, legitimate constitution of society. In this sense it is by default within the bounds of ‘mainstream politics’.
Although the political muteness and implied mainstream position posited here is pervasive in practice, it is not adequately reflected in our explicit theoretical reflections. Here the idea predominates that the architect should be ‘politically critical’, and not just acquiesce in the client’s agenda. It is often said that the architect should assume a role and societal responsibility that reaches beyond the client’s interest to take into account all stake-holders and to regard the public interest at large. The client’s merely ‘commercial interests’ are deemed problematic (despite the fact that in an advanced, money-mediated society all life interests take the form of “commercial” interests, and this includes the architect’s own livelihood).4
In our advanced democratic societies the architect is only answerable to his client, and it is the client who is obliged (by political imposition) to take care that all stakeholder’s interests considered politically relevant are recognized and who instructs the architect accordingly. That all legitimate interests are taken into account is the client’s, the planner’s, and ultimately the court’s responsibility. Within the given legal and political constraints the market regulates the programmatic allocation of land resources to the effectively demanded social uses, as anticipated by entrepreneurs. Architects interpret these contents spatially and formally – via spatial organisation and formal articulation – to allow the flourishing of those specific social life-processes that the client or hosting institution would like to host, and to simultaneously safeguard the interests of all those stakeholders the client has instructed him to consider. Any further self-appointment of the architect as ‘guardian of the public interest’ would be delusional, arbitrary and simply unprofessional.


Parametricism, Candidate Epochal Style for the 21st Century

It is important to explode the delusional pretence of a “critical architecture” in order to clear the view and path towards viable architectural ambitions that can make a real contribution to the progress of world civilization, in line with the discipline’s specific competency. If we architects gain a realistic grasp of architecture’s real domain of competency and thus its specific criticality, we can become indeed very ambitious. Here is a realistic ambition that is likely to be crowned by pervasive success: the total make-over of the physiognomy of the global built environment and the world of artefacts according to the principles of parametricism. Is this aiming too high? Not at all. Think back to the Bauhaus of the mid-twenties. Did not what they developed then deliver a total make-over of the physiognomy of the global built environment and the world of artefacts in the 20th century? There is nothing that escaped the Bauhaus’ thrust in the 20th century. Today’s reach of the globally integrated design discourse is much more pervasive and its trends disseminate more rapidly. More than ever, the totally of world production has to pass through this needle’s eye of a discursively determined design paradigm. Everything that is made is being designed by a designer and thus by a participant of our global design discourse .
Of course, this total spatio-morphological make-over is only a part of total society. This make-over has to co-evolve with the parallel processes of change in world economy, world science, technology, world politics etc. etc. The ambitions of parametricism update the ambitions of the modern movement.5

The key historical category that motivates and calls for parametricism’s take over from modernism is ‘post-fordist network society’ as distinct from the prior era of fordist mass society. In ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ the author has elaborated a theory of styles within which the concept of epochal styles implies a historical alignment with societal (socio-economic) epochs. Architecture emerged from tradition bound building as differentiated, consciously innovative, theory-led discipline in the Renaissance and advanced  - in co-evolution with the other societal subsystems like science, the economy, politics etc. that started to be differentiated at the same time – via the progression of epochal styles. (Postmodernism and Deconstructivism are transitional rather than epochal styles, transitional episodes between Modernism and Parametricism, like Art Nouveau and Expressionism were transitional styles on the way to Modernism.) The epochal location of parametricism can be succinctly characterized by the following table:


Society/Socio-Economic epoch

tradition-bound building


medieval vernacular







feudalism + rising cities

architectural history: epochal styles



early captialism / city states




bourgeois capitalism, nations-states


fordism/international socialism


global, post-fordist network society

Fig. 1 Epochal alignments of styles


Parametricism is valid and vital whether post-fordist socio-economic restructuring proceeds within a social democratic or a liberal (or even libertarian) political frame, just as modernism was compatible with both capitalism and socialism in the 20th century.6 On both side of the iron curtain modernist architecture had to adapt to the respective political and economic conditions. The essential characteristics of modernism survived these divergent adaptations.7 In the same way parametricism’s historical pertinence will have to prove its robustness with respect to the particular and potentially divergent adaptations that global post-fordism will engender in the political realm in the different parts of world society.

Fig.2 Medieval town; Fig.3 Palmanova, Renaissance; Fig.4 Chateau de Versailles, Baroque

Fig.5 Le Corbusier, Ville Radieuse, 1924; Fig.6 Zaha Hadid Architects, Istanbul Masterplan, 2007

Parametricism is the contemporary style that is most vigorously advancing its design agenda on the basis of computationally augmented, parametric design techniques. It is a wide-spread paradigm and global movement within contemporary architecture that emerged and gathered momentum during the last 15 years. The author is an active participant in the advancement of this movement via teaching arenas like the AA Design Research Lab and via the designs and buildings of Zaha Hadid Architects. The movement, the only truly innovative direction within contemporary architecture, has by now sufficiently demonstrated its capacity to credibly aspire to become the universally recognized best practice approach to architectural and urban design globally. Parametricism is ready to make an impact: to transform the physiognomy of the global built environment and the totality of the world of designed artefacts, just like modernism did in the 20th century.

As conceptual definition of parametricism one might offer the following formula: Parametricism implies that all architectural elements and compositions are parametrically malleable.  This implies a fundamental ontological shift within the basic, constituent elements of architecture. Instead of the classical and modern reliance on ideal geometrical figures, straight lines, rectangles, as well as cubes, cylinders, pyramids, and (semi-)spheres, the new primitives of parametricism are animate (dynamic, adaptive, interactive) geometrical entities   - splines, nurbs, subdivs, particle-spring systems, agent based systems ect.- as fundamental ‘geometrical’ building blocks for dynamical compositions that can be made to resonate with each other (and with contextual conditions) via scripts.
In principle every property of every element or complex is subject to parametric variation. The key technique for handling this variability is the scripting of functions that establish associations between the properties of the various elements. However, although the new style is to a large extent dependent upon these new design techniques the style cannot be reduced to the mere introduction of new tools and techniques. What characterizes the new style are new ambitions and new values  - both in terms of form and in terms of function -  that are to be pursued with the aid of the new tools and techniques. Parametricism pursues the very general aim to organize and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within post-fordist network society. For this task parametricism aims to establish a complex variegated spatial order. It uses scripting to lawfully differentiate and correlate all elements and subsystems of a design. The goal is to intensify the internal interdependencies within an architectural design as well as the external affiliations and continuities within complex, urban contexts. Parametricism offers a new, complex order via the principles of differentiation and correlation.
This general verbal and motivational definition of parametricism can and must be complemented by an operational definition. It is necessary to operationalise the intuitive values of a style in order to make its hypotheses testable, to make its dissemination systematic so that it can be exposed to constructive criticism, including self-critique.

The operational definition of a style must formulate general instructions that guide the creative process in line with the general ambitions and expected qualities of the style. A style is not only concerned with the elaboration and evaluation of architectural form. Each style poses a specific way of understanding and handling functions. Accordingly, the operational definition of parametricism comprises both a formal heuristics, establishing rules and principles that guide the elaboration and evaluation of the design’s formal development and resolution, as well as a functional heuristics, establishing rules and principles that guide the elaboration and evaluation of the design’s social functionality.
For each of these two dimensions the operational definition formulates the heuristics of the design process in terms of operational taboos and dogmas specifying what to avoid and what to pursue. At the same time these heuristic design guidelines provide criteria of self-critique and continuous design enhancement.

Operational definition of Parametricism:

Formal heuristics:

Negative principles/taboos:

avoid rigid forms (lack of malleability)
avoid simple repetition (lack of variety)
avoid collage of isolated, unrelated elements (lack of order)

Positive principles/dogmas: 

all forms must be variable and adaptive (deformation = information)
all systems must be differentiated (gradients)
all systems must be interdependent (correlations)

Functional heuristics:

Negative principles/taboos:

avoid rigid functional stereotypes
avoid segregative functional zoning

Positive principles/dogmas:

all functions are parametric activity/event scenarios
all activities/events communicate with each other

The avoidance of the taboos and the adherence to the dogmas delivers complex, variegated order for complex social institutions. These principles outline pathways for the continuous critique and improvement of the design. The designer can always increase the coherence and intricacy of his/her design by inventing further variables and degrees of freedom for the compositions’ primitive components. There is always scope for the further differentiation of the arrays or subsystems that are made up by the elemental primitives. This differentiation can be increased with respect to the number of variables at play, with respect to the range of differences it encompasses and with respect to the fineness and differential rhythm of its gradients. There is always further scope for the correlation of the various subsystems at play in the multi-system set up. Ultimately every subsystem will be in a relation of mutual dependency with every other subsystem, directly or indirectly. The number of aspects or properties of each subsystem that are involved in the network of correlation might be increased with each design step. Further there is always the possibility (and often the necessity) to add further subsystems or layers to the (ever more complex and intricate) composition. Also: it is always possible to identify further aspects or features of the (principally unlimited) urban context that might become an occasion for the design to register and respond to. Thus the context sensitivity of the design can be increased with every design step. Thus the heuristics of parametricism direct a trajectory of design intensification that is in principle an infinite task and trajectory. There is always a further possibility pushing up the intensity, coherence, intricacy (and beauty) of the design. As the network of relations tightens, each further step becomes more elaborate, more involved as all the prior subsystems and their trajectories of differentiation should be taken into account. Arbitrary additions show up conspicuously as alien disruption of the intricate order elaborated so far. Each additional element or subsystem that enters the composition at a late, highly evolved stage challenges the ingenuity of the designer, and more so the more the design advances. The complex, highly evolved design assumes more and more the awe-inspiring air of a quasi-natural necessity. However, the design remains open ended. There can be no closure. The classical concepts of completeness and perfection do not apply to parametricism. Parametricism’s complex variegated order does not rely on the completion of a figure. It remains an inherently open composition and design trajectory.
In the perspective of architecture, and specifically in the perspective of contemporary parametric design, contemporary society is a vast panoply of parametrically variable event scenarios.  This formula spells the program dimension of the built environment in terms of the parametricist paradigm. So far parametricism has primarily focussed on formal correlation, the correlation of formal-spatial subsystems. However, it is pertinent to expand parametricism’s key concept of correlation to include form-function relations, i.e. including the correlation of the patterned built environment with the patterns of social communications that unfold within it. This is meaningful because the same computational techniques that operationalize the concept of formal correlation can now be applied to form-function correlations.

How is this possible?

The functional heuristics of parametricism as defined above propose to conceive of the functions of spaces in terms of dynamic patterns of social communications, i.e. as parametrically variable, dynamic event scenarios rather than static schedules of accommodation that list functional stereotypes. It has now become possible to model the functional layer of the built environment and thus incorporate it into the design process. This is made possible by computational crowd modelling techniques via agent-based models. Such models reproduce or predict collective patterns of movement from the aggregation of individual agents presumed to navigate their environment according to defined rules. Tools like “MiArmy” or “AI.implant” (available as plugins for Maya), or “Massive” now make behavioural modelling within designed environments accessible to architects. Agent modelling should not be limited to crowd circulation flows, but should encompass all patterns of occupation and social interaction in space. The agents’ behaviour might be scripted so as to be correlated with the configurational and morphological features of the designed environment, i.e. programmed agents respond to environmental clues. Such clues or triggers might also include furniture configurations as well as other artifacts. The idea is to build up dynamic action-artifact networks. Colours, textures, and stylistic features, that together with ambient parameters (lighting conditions) constitute and characterize a certain territory might influence the behavioural mode (mood) of the agent. Since the ‘meaning’ of an architectural space is the (nuanced) type of event or social interaction to be expected within its territory, the new tools allow for the re-foundation of architectural semiology as parametric semiology. This implies that the meaning of the architectural language can enter the design medium (digital model). The semiological project implies that the design project systematizes all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification. A system of signification is a system of mappings (correlations) that map distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signified (here the domain of patterns of social interaction) onto distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signifier (here the domain of spatial positions and morphological features defining and characterizing a given territory) and viceversa. The system of signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the relevantly coded positional and morphological clues so that expected behaviours can be read off the articulated environmental configuration.8

A Unified Style argued for within a Unified Theory of Architecture

The author (who originally coined this term in 2007/2008) argues that parametricism is the only truly innovative direction within architecture and should be promoted as the only credible candidate aspiring to become the unified epochal style for architecture, urbanism and all the design disciplines for the 21st century. This thesis is being argued for within a comprehensive, unified theory of architecture/design (the theory of architectural autopoiesis) that is embedded within an overarching theory of society (Luhmann’s social systems theory).9
Clarity and unity of agenda are necessary preconditions for effective collective action10. Such clarity and unity must not be based on prejudice or a simplistic world view. The world within which architecture must try to redefine its role and agenda seems much more complex and uncertain than the world in which architectural modernism made its mark 50 years ago. Many have come to believe that this world is too fragmented and contested to allow for a unified collective architectural agenda analogous to the modern movement. This scepticism within architecture coincides with the general distrust for grand comprehensive theories in philosophy and the social science since the crisis of Marxism as well as of development and modernization theories in general. The 1970s exposed the naivety of those theories’ expectations of global industrialization, democratization, the expansion of general social welfare, and the smoothing of business cycles via democratic regulation and central steering. The world had become a rather more complex and unpredictable place. This new condition was reflected in the new theoretical sophistication of post-structuralist philosophy. New loops of theoretical reflection  - the reflection upon language, discourse, audience, institutional interests etc. -  circumscribed and relativized the substantial claims that might still be made in social and cultural analysis. However, the ability to navigate the new cultural complexities was accompanied by a relativist stance that was sceptical towards attempts at overarching theoretical synthesis. So there is no comprehensive post-structuralist theory of contemporary society. Instead we witness a proliferation of perspectives and areas of study. At the same time modernism in architecture/design gave way to a pluralism of styles and approaches.
However, the increased complexity and diversification of social phenomena, more than ever, unfolds within a single integrated social world. Thus there remains  - more than ever -  the possibility (and necessity) of a unified theory, a theory that is much more complex than earlier theories and that includes the new post-structuralist insights and loops of reflection.
There is indeed such a social theory, a theory that can cope with this new level of complexity and uncertainty. This is Niklas Luhmann’s theory of ‘functionally differentiated society’, embedded in his ‘social systems theory’ based on complexity theory and the theory of autopoiesis. My unified theory of architecture  is explicitly building on Luhmann’s theory and can be read as a new component within his theoretical system.

Many have come to believe that the pluralism of styles and perspectives that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s is an inherent and inevitable characteristic of our epoch, and that a globally shared architectural agenda analogous to the modern movement is no longer possible. Against this stands the fact that a global convergence of design research efforts has gathered sufficient momentum within the architectural avant-garde over the last 15 years to make the emergence of a new unified paradigm and agenda in analogy to modernism plausible today. Six years ago I proposed a name for this movement - parametricism - and started my attempts to summarize its novel features, methodologies, and values. As a committed participant I also tried to explicate its rationality, advantages, and preliminary achievements in the light of the current ‘historical’ condition: the globalized, knowledge- and network society. Due to the 2008 financial crisis and its economic aftermath – the great recession - the proliferation of parametricism has been much slower than one might have expected six years ago. However, further progress has been made in the movement’s evolution from an (ongoing) avant-garde design research agenda to a movement with the strategic agenda of global implementation across all scales and programme categories. At least this is the author’s ambition. Its viability is demonstrated by the dramatic expansion of Zaha Hadid Architects in scale, scope and global reach.11

Is this ambition and claim towards the global implementation of the new paradigm not contradicted by the diversity of climatic, socio-economic, and cultural conditions? My answer to this often posed question is that differentiation and local adaptation is the very essence of parametricism. The abstractness and thus open-endedness of its general heuristic principles guarantee the adaptive versatility of its solution space. While the world is more diverse and differentiated – across countries and continents as well as within its mega-cities – it also is more interconnected and integrated than ever, so that talk of a single world society becomes ever more justified. Thus no region, culture or subculture can remain secluded from the most advanced, global best practice architectural paradigm. This is already borne out by the fact that in nearly all countries of the world both projects and protagonists of parametricism can be found.

As hinted at above, parametricism is the only credible candidate for a new global epochal style for architecture, urbanism and the design disciplines since modernism’s crisis and demise more than 30 years ago. Its emergence so far is already a significant fact of architectural history. However, an avant-garde style is an emergent, evolving discursive phenomenon in which many contributors and voices coalesce. Its identification, naming, and theoretical explication is just one more discursive event within its evolution. This was my contribution via my writings since 2008 and via Volume 1 of my treatise ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’. Volume 1 is subtitled ‘A New Framework for Architecture’12. It charts, rationalizes and historicizes what has been achieved. By itself it does not yet formulate a decisive, future oriented agenda for architecture’s further progress. The formulation of an agenda for architecture’s further advance and the attempt to upgrade the discipline’s intellectual and methodological resources in order to meet the challenges posed and to exploit the opportunities afforded by contemporary civilisation, this is the ambition of the 2nd Volume of my treatise. Its subtitle reads ‘A New Agenda for Architecture’13.

The key categories in Luhmann’s theoretical edifice are the concept of communication and the concept of social system. Social systems are systems of communications. This makes sense in a world where all problems are now first of all problems of communication. World society is understood as the totality of all communications. These communications are self-organized into autopoietic14 systems primarily according to the principle of functional differentiation. Accordingly, my theory of architecture theorizes the discipline of architecture as an evolving system of communications (discourse) that takes universal and exclusive responsibility for the innovation of the built environment, in functional differentiation to engineering, science, art, politics, law, economy etc. The specific responsibility of architecture/design concerns the social/communicative functionality (in distinction to the technical/engineering functionality) of the built environment. Spaces are theorized as framing communications that function as invitations and premises for all the interactions that (are meant to) take place within them. Each territory/frame is embedded within a system of frames that can be understood as a system of signification.
Society can only evolve with the simultaneous ordering of space. The life process of society is a communication process that is structured by an ever more complex and richly diversified matrix of institutions and communicative situations. The built environment orders and stabilizes this matrix of institutions and makes it legible. The innovation of the built environment participates in the expansion, differentiation and integration of this network of communicative situations. The built environment with its complex matrix of territorial distinctions is a giant, navigable, information-rich interface of communication.

Within contemporary network society (information society, knowledge economy), total social productivity increases with the density of communication. Contemporary network society demands that we continuously browse and scan as much of the social world as possible to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must remain networked all the time to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. Tele-communication cannot replace face to face and group communication or the browsing of a dense urban environment. The importance of the built environment further increases as mobile tele-communication unchains us from our desks and releases us into the space of the city. The whole built environment becomes an interface of multi-modal communication, and the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today. Our increasing ability to scan an ever-increasing simultaneity of events, and to move through a rapid succession of communicative encounters, constitutes the essential, contemporary form of cultural advancement. The further advancement of this vital capacity requires a new built environment with an unprecedented level of complexity, a complexity that is organized and articulated into a complex, variegated order of the kind we admire in natural, self-organized systems. The city is a complex, densely layered text and a permanent broadcast. Our ambition as architects and urban designers must be to spatially unfold more simultaneous choices of communicative situations in dense, perceptually palpable, and legible arrangements. The visual field must be rich in interaction opportunities and information about what lies behind the immediate field of vision.

My thesis is that the built environment should be conceived and designed as a three-dimensional, 360 degree, layered interface of communication. It can communicate the more the more becomes simultaneously visible. But that is not enough. Its communicative capacity depends on the coherency of its internal order so that what is visible allows for inferences about what is invisible or not yet visible. This depends on the consistency of its form-function correlations, so that a positional or morphological distinction or difference makes a predictable difference in terms of expected social interaction pattern or social function. Thus the built environment’s communicative capacity is enhanced the more the employed architectural order and morphology is designed as a coherent system of signification.

The Prospect of a Free Market Urban Order

All top down bureaucratic attempts to order the built environment are bankrupt. The experiences of the last 35 years indicates that within the ‘postmodern condition’ (post-fordist network society) all political attempts to intervene in spontaneous urban development processes  lead to wasteful distortions, delays, underutilization, shortages and inflated real estate prices. Only market processes can process the new diversity and complexity of information and generate the knowledge required to deliver land and real estate resources reliably to productive and desired uses, avoiding wasteful misallocations. However, while laissez faire development can deliver a socially (market) validated program mix and program distribution, it seems bound to produce visual chaos in the urban dimension. This visual disorder is not only ugly and distracting, it is disorienting and thus compromises the social functionality of the built environment. The articulation of a legible spatial order – the architect’s core competency - is itself a vital aspect not only of the city’s liveability but also of its economic productivity.15

The question is thus posed: How can the vital desire for urban order, legibility and identity be reconciled with a free market that includes an equally unrestrained artistic freedom? In short: How can entrepreneurial and artistic freedom lead to urban order? My answer is twofold:
1. Freedom and order can coincide in private planning.
2. Freedom and order beyond the bounds of private planning can emerge via the discursive convergence of the design disciplines towards a new epochal style: Parametricism.

Around 1980 large scale state planned and subsidized urban expansions vanished in the advanced economies and with it vanished the disciplines of urbanism and physical urban planning. Planning was hence-force confined to operate negatively, by means of restricting private actors. The disappearance of urbanism is a moment in the crisis of modernism, itself but a moment in the crisis of Fordism understood as the era of the mechanical mass production of a national consumption standard within a planned or mixed economy, under the auspices of either socialist or social-democratic welfare politics. The last 30 years since have been marked by the re-assertion of market forces and globalization under the auspices of neo-liberal politics. Since 1980 we live in the era of a market-led post-fordist socio-economic restructuring. The re-admission of international market forces and entrepreneurships, a reaction to the grinding 1970s socio-economic stagnation of economic interventionism and welfare-ism, combusted with the versatile productive potentials of the micro-electronic revolution to unleash a new socio-economic dynamic: the emergence of post-fordist network society. Life-style diversification and the new diversity in products and services made economically viable by the new design and production systems engaged in mutual amplification. The diversity of new enterprises coupled with accelerating cylcles of innovation (made viable by the new technologies and expanded markets) engendered a much differentiated and intensified societal communication. The planned decentralization via mute, monotonous, zoned satellite settlements separating sleeping silos from industrial estates was no longer a viable recipe for societal advancement. In terms of urban development this implied the return to the historic centres with individual incisions as well as a deregulated, laissez faire sprawling beyond the bounds of emerging mega-cities.16 Both tendencies can be described as forms of collage, the anti-thesis of planned or designed development. The result is what I have called garbage spill urbanisation. This mode of development is certainly better adapted to the new socio-economic dynamics than the bankrupt, simplistic order of modernist planning and urbanism. However, it produces a disorienting visual chaos that compromises the vital communicative capacity of the built environment. While the new diversity and open-endedness of post-fordist social phenomena is being accommodated, the unregulated agglomeration of differences produced the global effect of white noise sameness everywhere without allowing for the emergence of distinct urban identities within a legible urban order.

Fig.7 Urban disarticulation/disorientation, Tokyo; Fig.8 differences collapse into sameness

Fig. 9 Deconstructivism as aesthetics of urban collage, D. Libeskind, Micro-megas, 1981


This phenomenological disarticulation of the emergent organisational complexity hampers the full potential for complex social organisation and communication. Social functionality depends as much on subjective visual accessibility as it depends on objective physical availability. Architects should recognize this instrumentality of visual appearances as a key moment of their core competency and task. Social cooperation requires that specifically relevant actors find each other and configure within specific communicative situations. This insight motivates architectural attempts to articulate a complex variegated urban order that allows for the intuitive navigation and orientation within an information-rich built environment that makes its rich offerings visually accessible. That is the design agenda of parametricism and parametric urbanism. There is no doubt that the new computational ordering devices like gradients, vector fields, and the methods of associative modelling and geometric data-field transcoding allow designers to generate intricately ordered urban morphologies with distinct identities that could in principle make a much larger amount of programmatic information perceptually tractable. However, the question arises how this desired increase in urban order can be implemented in the face of a receding state planning apparatus?
One obvious way in which the vacuum left by state planning can be filled is by means of what might be called ‘private planning’, i.e. by a process whereby private development corporations or consortiums unify larger and larger development areas within a coherent, market controlled urban business strategy. This emerging phenomenon allows for the strategic, value-enhancing garnering and steering of programmatic synergies, while remaining continuously sensitive and flexible with respect to market and thus end-user validation, i.e. without suffering from the rigidities and blockages that hamper state efforts subject to all-too slow political and bureaucratic procedures, ideologies and rent-seeking special interest groups. “Planning” for a complex societal dynamic is inherently uncertain and thus speculative. The degree of flexibility such a plan should have is one more uncertain speculation, a risky business that is being entrusted to entrepreneurs and investors with their own skin in the game, rather than to (essentially indifferent) bureaucrats. Private planning seems to have a better prospect to succeed in this fast-pace, dynamic environment without central control system. Only market based decisions, guided by up-to-date price signals, have a chance here to process the best relevant information and guarantee due diligence. A system of private planning - operating under the market’s selection pressure of profit and loss – can process the information condensed into price-signals in order to achieve a rational, economizing allocation of urban resources within a coherent, synergetic mix of most valued uses. It does so by aligning all vital actor’s incentives with a relative urban value-maximization and thus most productive and desired end-user utilization. The degree of territorial comprehensiveness of such synergy hunting private planning efforts is an empirical question that can only be answered by the unleashed market processes themselves. So far we can observe two relevant empirical facts with respect to this question: first, it must be observed that even the most atomized market-based development process, where “planning” is confined to individual isolated parcels, has a far higher degree of adaptive pertinence with respect to post-fordist network society and is generating more economic and urban vitality than the state-planned urban expansions of yesteryear. The second fact is that - while isolated insertions continue – we can observe a tendency towards attempts to merge and integrate parcels within the historical centres and towards larger and larger privately master-planned development sites within the wider expanse of the global mega-cities where development is concentrated. In this sense private planning is on the rise and thus affords opportunities for visual as much as programmatic integration.17

Is the degree of order that parametric urbanism aspires to possible beyond the level of integration achievable via private planning? More generally: is urbanism at all possible in the face of free market dynamism? Deconstructivism can be looked at as the aesthetic ideology of this urban process of “garbage spill” collage. Like the move from classical architecture to modernism, the move from modernism to deconstructivism and collage delivered an expansion of degrees of freedom and versatility (to accommodate a more complex society) that was paid for by a relaxation or rejection of rules of composition, i.e. of means of ordering, and thus a resultant degeneration of the visual order. Parametricism is the first style that delivers further degrees of freedom and versatility in conjunction with a simultaneous increase in its ordering capacity via new compositional rules like affiliations, gradients and associative logics. In principle all design moves are now rule based and thus with the potential to enhance the visual order and thus legibility of the built environment in the face of an increased complexity.

Fig. 10 The simultaneous enhancement of freedom and order: inversion of architecture’s entropy law


If we look at the historical progression of styles we find that the last 300 years established what we might call architecture’s entropy law: all gains in terms of design freedom and versatility have been achieved at the expense of urban and architectural order, i.e. increases in versatility had to be bought by a progressive degeneration of architecture’s ordering capacity. The increase of degrees of freedom established via the enrichment of architecture’s formal-compositional repertoire was the paramount criterion of progress in architecture’s pursuit of matching the requisite variety of societal complexity.  Order was progressively eroded. This long trend of a negative correlation of freedom and order can be reversed under the auspices of parametricism. Parametricism offers the simultaneous increase in freedom and order and thus inaugurates a new phase of architectural neg-entropy. Parametricism’s radical ontological and methodological innovation translates into a massive leap in both dimensions of architectural progress considered here, i.e. it entails an unprecedented expansion of architecture’s compositional freedom and versatility and an unprecedented leap in architecture’s ordering capacity through the deployment of algorithms and associative logics. This reversal of architecture’s entropy law, this new ordering capacity or architectural neg-entropy is the critical factor in architecture’s potential to halt the ongoing urban disarticulation of the world’s built environments. However, this factor can only come into play of parametricism achieves hegemony as the unified, epochal style of the 21st century.

The market process is an evolutionary process that operates via mutation (trial and error), selection and reproduction. It is self-correcting, self-regulation, leading to a self-organized order. Thus we might presume that the land use allocation and thus the programmatic dimension of the urban and architectural order is to be determined by architecture’s private clients within a market process that allocates land resources to the most valued uses. However, in the absence of stylistic and methodological coherence we cannot expect the underlying programmatic order to become legible as a spatio-morphological order. For this to happen we must presume a hegemonic stylistic and methodological paradigm that has the versatility and ordering capacity to translate the social order into a complex variegated spatial order. A shared paradigm offers the prospect of coherence across multiple authors working for multiple clients. No controlling hand needs to be presupposed, no political enforcement. All that is required is the further discursive convergence of a unified style that can deliver the combination of versatility (freedom) and order. The only viable candidate for the next hegemonic epochal style is thus parametricism.

Fig. 11 Parametricism: Complex Variegated Order via multi-author coherence, Studio Hadid, Yale University, 2013


Neither a hegemonic Postmodernism, nor a hegemonic Deconstructivism could overcome the visual chaos that allows the proliferation of differences to collapse into global sameness (white noise). Both Postmodernism and Deconstructivism operate via collage, i.e. via the unconstrained agglomeration of differences. Only Parametricism has the capacity to combine an increase in complexity with a simultaneous increase in order, via the principles of lawful differentiation and multi-system correlation. Only parametricism can overcome the visual chaos and white noise sameness that laissez faire urbanisation produces everywhere. Parametricism holds out the possibility of a free market urbanism that produces an emergent order and local identity in a bottom up process, i.e. without relying on political or bureaucratic power. The values and methodological principles of parametricism are prone to produce path-dependent, self-amplifying local identities. Its ethos of contextual affiliation and ambition to establish or reinforce continuities allows for the development of unique urban identities on the basis of local contexts, topography, climate etc. Parametricist order does not rely on the uniform repetition of patterns as Modernist urbanism does. In contrast to Baroque or Beaux Arts master-plans, Parametricist compositions are inherently open ended (incomplete) compositions. Their order is relational rather than geometric. They establish order and orientation via the lawful differentiation of fields, via vectors of transformation, as well as via contextual affiliations and subsystem correlations. This neither requires the completion of a figure, nor - in contrast to Modernist master-plans - the uniform repetition of a pattern. There are always many (in principle infinitely many) creative ways to transform, to affiliate, to correlate. Parametricism thus holds out the prospect of a free market urban order. The functional (programmatic) dimension of this new urban order is being delivered by client-entrepreneurs competing and collaborating within the institutional framework of the global market process: neo-liberalism. The formal (spatio-morphological) dimension of this order can be delivered by architects competing and collaborating under the auspices of a shared, discursively institutionalized, global best practice paradigm: parametricism.



1This paradoxical inversion of richness into sameness is due to the limitations of perceptual cognitive processing.

2 This affirmation is usually implicit rather than explicit as the architect’s political positioning would disrupt his architectural discourse.

3 The author is sceptical about totalising programmes of revolutionary action, while recognizing the need for totalizing theories of society as frameworks of orienting self-localization.

4 The distinction of social concerns and commercial interests is a dangerous common place. The unleashing of commercial forces is what has delivered us from the savage destitution and bone-breaking drudgery of older times. This much even Karl Marx understood when he sang the praises of a globalized capitalist dynamism in his Communist Manifesto. Commerce is a dynamic social process in which everybody pursues his or her vital life interests.

5 The update the ambitions of the modernism of a Le Corbusier rather than the ambitions of bolshevism and Lenin – the last credible but failed totalizing philosopher king (who morphed into the murderous totalitarian dictator Stalin).

6 I have come to believe that post-fordist network society needs to go further along the current path of globalization and most importantly liberalization, the unleashing of individualism and individual liberty as a precondition of bottom up self-organising, emergent systems of social cooperation. So, as politically thinking citizen I am not afraid of political argument, but I am not willing to make my architectural position and agenda dependent upon my personal political position and I do not believe that the fate of my architectural project depends on the realization of my political preference for a society based on individual liberty rather than political control. I believe that Parametricism is congenial to this outlook, however its validity as global best practice does not depend on this particular political premise.

7 This universal validity of modernism on both sides of the iron curtain became manifest after the direct political control of design decisions was relinquished after Stalin’s death in 1953.

8 This project of an agent-based parametric semiology is the author’s most recent design research project. The results are promising but as yet tentative.

9 My underlying epistemology is radical constructivism, which I understand to be a variant of pragmatism. The theory  reflects itself as a designed theoretical construction that sets itself contingent and understands itself as a provisional attempt to integrate a multiplicity of insights. It evaluates itself in terms of its comprehensiveness, fruitfulness and relevance for contemporary architectural practice.

10 When we speak of collective action today we no longer mean organized or centrally coordinated action. What is implied here is a spontaneous convergence within an open ended network of communications.

11 Zaha Hadid started in 1980. After 20 years, in 2000,  Zaha Hadid Architects had only completed 3 small buildings and was employing 20 people. Currently ZHA is employing 450 people, working on about 80 projects world-wide, across all programme categories, including many large scale projects over 100,000 sqm and several above 300,000.

12 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.1: A New Framework for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2010

13 Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2: A New Agenda for Architecture, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012

14 The autopoiesis concept is fundamental to Luhmann’s system. Together with the concept of parallel (rather than hierarchical) functional differentiation it implies the impossibility of a societal control centre. World society evolves via the co-evolution of self-referentially enclosed autopietic social sub-systems.

15 The failure to grasp this instrumentality of the built environment’s appearance has for too long hampered architecture’s proactive pursuit of formal articulation as a key competency of the discipline. The crucial work on formal/aesthetic problems which in practice takes up the larger part of the architect’s design work is being denigrated or denied in the discipline’s self-descriptions. Architecture is responsible for the built environment’s social (rather than technical engineering) functionality. Social functionality of the built environment largely depends upon its communicative capacity, which in turn is a matter of visual communication through the built environment’s appearance.

16 One of the most detrimental restrictions that still hamper urban productivity are arbitrary restrictions on the density of land use. Economic vitality and productivity gains concentrate in the major high-productivity communication hubs that are the word’s mega-cities and conurbations of today. In Western Europe and North America political planning impediments unduly constrain this tendency and thus restrict potential synergies and productivity gains. The major cities and high productivity conurbations like London, New York, and Silicon Valley would grow much denser were it not for the political impediments. Massive land and real estate price differentials between the central world cities and other cities and regions reveal both the productivity and desirability differentials on the one hand and political restrictions of supply in the centres on the other hand. Internal price differentials between land use categories within cities  - like the gaping price difference between residential and office properties in London reveal how what is left of  municipal planning is at odds with real requirements as expressed in market demand.

17 The example of London’s great estates offers an encouraging historical precedent here, a precedent of private, market based, long term urban asset management and private planning establishing an urban order, inclusive of a visual architectural order.


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